Hand sanitiser. Social distancing. Gloves. Masks. Self-quarantine. There are many measures and tools that we can use to protect ourselves and others from the spread of Covid-19 – and over the past few months, we have come to take these for granted. But people in prisons, crammed in cells and deprived of protective equipment and basics like soap, are experiencing a different kind of lockdown – in countries around the world, prison systems are experiencing horrific outbreaks. In the US, the grassroots campaign #WeMatterToo is fighting to shed light on the situation, to hold prisons to account and to share stories from the inside. To that end, director Savanah Leaf has created an emotional animated short film which weaves together the testimony of people in prisons across the US. The film comes just as coronavirus cases hit the US Supreme Court and courts across the country. The film was produced by Park Pictures in the US (Savanah is represented by Academy Films in the UK) and came about through Savanah’s connection with the rapper Common and his organisation ‘Imagine Justice’. Savanah spoke to LBB’s Laura Swinton about making the film and her conversations with people in jails across the United States.
LBB> How did you get involved in the project?
Savanah> This project initially came about after doing a music video for Common. He has an outreach non-profit called 'Imagine Justice’ who was eager to get me involved on work they are doing with the ARC (Anti-Recidivism Coalition). When Corona virus hit the US, the focus of the film shifted to adapt to the current situation with the Pandemic.
LBB>What was it like personally listening through all of those conversations? How did it feel and how did it change your own perspective?
Savanah> I think having these conversations with so many people in jail across the United States, really opened my eyes to just how much the system as a whole is failing our community. Hearing someone in Washington DC go through very similar experiences as someone in Alameda county jail in California, makes it so apparent that there is not just a problem with how individual jails are being run, but how the system is as a whole. It didn’t necessarily change my perspective, but it made me comprehend the issues in greater depth. It also made me see how privileged I am in my quarantine environment, as opposed to so many people in jail who don't have the means to properly isolate themselves. The system is set up to let many people die, and I’m talking about thousands of people who have not even been convicted yet; they haven’t even gone to court yet. Even if they were convicted, it doesn’t make the system any better.
LBB> When you were constructing and editing the narrative to the film, what sort of stories and voices were you looking for and how did you approach that editing process?
Savanah> I was conducting all the phone-calls and asking the questions myself, so I knew the material really well going into the edit. I basically found parallels in everyone’s stories and pieced them together. In a way, the editing process still doesn’t feel complete, I want to create a longer form edit of all the conversations because the short edit just doesn’t to me feel like it does justice.
LBB> Why was animation the medium you chose to tell this story - on a practical level but also in terms of the emotional impact of the film?
Savanah> I mean right now I can’t film anyone in jail, I can’t take photographs or anything. I could potentially integrate stock footage but for me that didn’t feel like it would work as well due to the time frame we had to create this piece and how specific the photographs/film would need to be. In the end, what was most important was to try and create the emotion of what people are describing in the phone calls.
LBB> And the choice to use white chalk marks on black is interesting. It really gives the film a texture and perhaps triggers something in our brains around the feeling of dryness (it made me think of that feeling you get when your hands are covered in chalk dust, which is the opposite of what we associate with hygiene and handwashing!) - but what led you to this look and feel for the film?
Savanah> I really love that image of the chalk on hands, I didn’t think that when we were creating it but I love that feeling you have described. Actually the choice was suggested by the animation team, Art Camp, who I think did an incredible job. They often use this method for creating their animations, and that's in part why I was drawn to their work.
I think it works well because it’s not super clean or ‘perfect’, just like the sound of the phone calls. In the recordings, you can hear what’s going on in the background because these are actual phone calls from people in jail who are sitting in the day-rooms (communal spaces) with guards shouting in the background. There is nothing fake or ’perfect' about that. So for me, that style of animation really lends itself well to the nature of the sound and the textures you hear throughout the film.
LBB> What was the production process like and what were the biggest challenges of making a film like this under lockdown?
Savanah> The production process was extremely difficult in its own unique way. We had to create a film in less than three weeks with limited budget. We had to somehow speak to tons of people in jail, edit the recordings together, and do animations that relate to those experiences.
Thankfully, all of us felt committed to the subject matter so we all put in a lot of time and effort to create the best process given these obstacles. My producer was calling activist groups, defence attorneys, family members, everyone she could imagine trying to get me on phone-calls with people in jail. The animation team was trialling tons of different ways to draw in order to create the best approach in the time frame. It was an intense two and half weeks. All of us were working in ways we hadn’t done before because it felt necessary. Not just for the film, but for the importance of letting their voices be heard by the public as soon as possible.
Find out more about #WeMatterToo here.